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Opinion: Don't fear the coronavirus protests

Pfeifer Hans Kommentarbild App
Hans Pfeifer
May 23, 2020

Conspiracists worldwide are protesting government measures aimed at fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Politicians and media outlets should ignore them and offer assertive solutions instead, writes Hans Pfeifer.

German protesters and conspiracy theorists
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/S. Babbar

I have an acquaintance and Facebook "friend" in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. His name is Karl. For the past few weeks, Karl has been posting like crazy on the coronavirus. His opinions indicate he would be a perfect fit for protests against government lockdown measures designed to curb the spread of the deadly infection.

Karl is wholly convinced that Bill Gates is a baby killer, that immunization is about boosting profits for pharmaceutical companies, and that the coronavirus was created by the Democratic Party. But Karl does not belong to any group, nor is he an activist. He gets his inspiration from other like-minded social media users.

Debating with anti-vaxxers: An experiment

DW's Hans Pfeifer
DW's Hans Pfeifer Image: DW/B. Geilert

I decided to conduct an experiment with Karl. I entered into a debate, in which I took the time to quietly employ my investigative journalistic skills and seriously consider his claims. I took those claims seriously, followed them up and ultimately wrote back to him. When I informed him that the sources he cited were fictitious, I asked him once again for his thoughts on the matter. His response: "I don't care if they are fake or not — they could still be true!"

Eventually, Karl asked me if I wasn't perplexed by the fact that the Bible predicts that humanity will fall prey to a massive virus between 2020 and 2030, and that vaccines are the devil's work? Despite persistent requests to tell me where exactly I could find that information in the Bible, I never got a reply.

Karl had disappeared on Facebook.

Read moreCoronavirus: How do I recognize a conspiracy theory?

Long story short, the experiment was a failure. Karl isn't looking for someone to have a rational debate with; he is looking for fellow combatants. And that is the same thing most people yelling about vaccines, Bill Gates and lockdown measures on the streets these days are after, too. They are not interested in participating in a broad social debate — they want total victory. And anyone wearing a yellow Star of David on their chest with the word "unvaccinated," as was recently the case in Berlin, belittles the murder of millions of European Jews during World War II. Such people have one goal, and one goal only: Maximum provocation and a thirst for attention.

Toxic alliance

In the end, this article itself is counterproductive because its subject is a toxic alliance of disgruntled provocateurs. Ultimately, it is politicians and media outlets that are making these so-called protests out to be so much larger than they actually are. Add to that the fact that many of these protests are crawling with conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites and far-right extremists who have sought to exploit every opportunity to attack our open society. It seems the rest of society would very much like to leave those people just where they are: in isolation.

Germany and other democracies fall into a trap each time they seek to justify their actions to these supposedly "concerned citizens." What can come of a discussion with 5,000 people who are allowed to protest thanks to the protection of police – despite the health risks posed to them – and then scream at journalists, complaining that they can no longer speak their minds? It would be much more constructive to continue to publicly debate the pros and cons of various coronavirus measures in parliament and in the media.

Conspiracy theory as business model

Those who value democratic society really only have one thing to fear: The fact that the ear-piercing screams of those opposed to our current open democracies have morphed into a business model. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the US news outlet Fox News earn millions each year by spreading half-truths, hate speech and anti-Semitism. Anyone concerned about the impact that this business model can have on a democracy need look no further than the incredible rise to power of one Donald J. Trump.  

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Pfeifer Hans Kommentarbild App
Hans Pfeifer Hans Pfeifer is a DW reporter specializing in right-wing extremism.@Pfeiferha